How did Vikings fight boredom? Well that answer’s easy!
They raided, burned villages, half naked women, lots of explosions in the background, ham and bacon sandwiches, and a never ending flow of mead.
Okay, maybe not. That’s Hollywood’s version of Viking life. Not to mention Hollywood’s obsession for horned helmets and warriors that never took off their armor. In truth, the Vikings were simply like anyone else and occasionally got bored and played games.
The Norse played a variety of tafl or hnefatafl (try pronouncing it: “neffa-taffle”) board games. Tafl games are ancient Germanic and Celtic strategy board games that were played on a checkered or latticed gameboard with two opposing armies of uneven numbers.
These board games have been found in several Viking grave sites and have even been found depicted on Runestones.
The board game Hnefatafl has been mentioned in several medieval sagas, including the Orkneyinga saga, Friðþjófs saga, Hervarar saga, and others. The Sagas simply mentioning them, help tell us how widespread the use of board games were in the Viking world.
In the Orkneyinga saga, the notability of Hnefatafl is evident in the nine boasts of Jarl Rögnvald Kali Kolsson, who tops his list with skill at playing Tafl, a variation of Hnefatafl.
In the Friðþjófs saga, a conversation over a game of Hnefatafl reveals that the king’s men are red and the attackers white, and that the word hnefi does indeed refer to the king-piece.
The most revealing – and yet most ambiguous – clues to Hnefatafl lie in a series of riddles posed by a character identified as Odin in disguise (Gestumblindi) in Hervarar saga. One riddle, as stated in Hauksbók, refers to “the weaponless maids who fight around their lord, the [brown/red] ever sheltering and the [fair/white] ever attacking him,” although there is controversy over whether the word weaponless refers to the maids or, as in other versions, to the king himself, which may support the argument that a “weaponless king” cannot take part in captures.
One may also note that the assignment of the colours of brown or red to the defenders and fair or white to the attackers is consistent with Friðþjófs saga.
Another of Gestumblindi’s riddles asks, “What is that beast all girded with iron, which kills the flocks? He has eight horns but no head, and runs as he pleases.” Here, it is the answer that is controversial, as the response has been variously translated as: “It is the húnn in hnefatafl. He has the name of a bear and runs when he is thrown;” or, “It is the húnn in hnefatafl. He has the name of a bear and escapes when he is attacked.” The first problem is in translating the word húnn, which may refer to a die (as suggested by the former translation), the “eight horns” referring to the eight corners of a six-sided die and “the flocks” that he kills referring to the stakes the players lose. Alternatively, húnn may refer to the king, his “eight horns” referring to the eight defenders, which is more consistent with the latter translation, “He has the name of a bear and escapes when he is attacked.”
Ultimately, the literary references are inconclusive on the use of dice in Hnefatafl. There have been many dice finds in graves that also contained the board game, but the Norse also played and gambled with dice games. It is unknown if dice were used in Hnefatafl.
Although a widely spread board game in the Viking world; game boards, play, and game rules varied from region to region.
There are different variants of Tafl, such as:
Brandub (Irish: bran dubh) was the Irish version of tafl. We know from two poems that it was played with five men against eight and that one of the five was a called “Branán”, or chief. A number of 7×7 boards have been found, the most famous being the elaborate wooden board found at Ballinderry in 1932, featuring holes for pegged pieces, possibly to allow for portability of the game.
The name brandub (Irish: bran dubh) means “black raven”.
Ard Rí (Gaelic meaning: High King) was a Scottish tafl variant played on a 7×7 board with a king and eight defenders against sixteen attackers. Sadly, this is the least documented version of the known tafl variants.
This variant from Sápmi, is the best documented version of the Tafl games. Carl Linnaeus recorded the rules and a drawing of the board in his journal during his 1732 expedition to Lapland. His description, in Latin, was incomplete, as he did not speak the Sami language of his hosts and described the game only from observing the players. The game was played on a 9×9 mat of embroidered reindeer hide. In his diary, Lachesis Lapponica, Linnaeus referred to the light (defending) pieces as “Swedes” and the dark (attacking) pieces as “Muscovites”.
This may have been the same game was still being played in the late 19th century, as described in P.A. Lindholm’s Hos Lappbönder (1884).
This variant was played in Wales. It is described as being played with 8 pieces on the king’s side and 16 on the attacker’s side. Robert ap Ifan documented it with a drawing in a manuscript dated 1587. His version was played on an 11×11 board with 12 pieces on the king’s side and 24 pieces on the opponent’s side.
His passage states:
“The above tawlbwrdd should be played with a king in the centre and twelve men in the places next to him, and twenty-four men seek to capture him. These are placed, six in the centre of each side of the board and in the six central positions. And two move the men in the game, and if one [piece] belonging to the king comes between the attackers, he is dead and is thrown out of the game, and the same if one of the attackers comes between two of the king’s men in the same manner. And if the king himself comes between two of the attackers, and if you say ‘Watch your king’ before he moves to that space, and he is unable to escape, you capture him. If the other says ‘I am your liegeman’ and goes between two, there is no harm. If the king can go along the [illegible] line, that side wins the game.”
Alea evangelii, which means “game of the gospels”, was described with a drawing in the 12th-century Corpus Christi College, Oxford manuscript 122, from Anglo-Saxon England. It was played on the intersections of a board of 18×18 cells. The manuscript describes the layout of the board as a religious allegory, but it is clear that this was a game based on Hnefatafl. This is where we assume the rules for game play for Hnefatafl.
Hnefatafl was a popular game in medieval Scandinavia and was mentioned in several of the Norse Sagas. Some of these saga references have contributed to controversy over the possible use of dice in playing hnefatafl. The rules of the game were never explicitly recorded and only playing pieces and fragmentary boards have been discovered, so it’s not known for sure how the game was played. If dice were in fact used, nothing has been recorded about how they were employed. Archaeological and literary sources indicate Hnefatafl may have been played on a 13×13 or an 11×11 board. It is known that it became a popular game in Northern Europe during the Viking era.
When chess became a popular game during the Middle Ages, the rules of Hnefatafl were forgotten over time. Hnefatafl was particularly popular in Nordic countries and followed the Viking civilization to other parts of Europe, primarily to the British Isles and the Viking country of “Gardarike”. The game developed differently at different locations.
Archaeologists have found editions in places such as Ireland and Ukraine.
Hnefatafl literally translates to “fist table,” from the Old Icelandic (equivalently in modern Icelandic) hnef, ‘fist’, and tafl, ‘table’. The study of medieval manuscripts and examination of pieces and boards has allowed researchers to figure out how the game was probably played. It was last recorded to have been played in Wales during 1587 and Lapland in 1723.
How to play Hnefatafl
The board game is much like Chess in which it is based on pure strategy. It is played on a 13×13 or 11×11 square board (11 x 11 being the most common sized board). One player’s side consists of a king and a small force of defenders which occupy the center of the board – the defenders. The other player has a much larger force of attackers, twice as numerous as the defenders, which occupy positions around the edge of the board.
The defending king piece (usually the lighter pieces) will begin by occupying the center, surrounded by his defending army pieces.
The attacking side (usually the darker pieces) will divide their pieces equally on all four sides.
The objective of the defending king is to escape to one of the outer edges or side of the board, while the objective of the attackers is to capture the king, preventing his escape. The pieces move orthogonally (forwards and backwards or side to side) like rooks in chess.
Players take turns moving and try to capture each other’s pieces and remove them from the board. A capture is achieved by surrounding a piece on two opposite sides.
The game is won when the attacker manages to capture the defender’s king or if the defender’s king makes it to the side or edge of the game board. Some variations of the rules state that the defender’s king must make it to one of the corners of the board.
There are many minor variations on these rules, as the game was spread across Northern Europe and developed its own set of “house rules” depending on where you were and who you played with.
by Njord Kane © 2016 Spangenhelm Publishing
Books on Viking Board Games:
- Reconstructing Hnefatafl by Damian Walker
- TAFL: Ancient Board Games of the Norse and Celtic Peoples of Scandinavia and the British Isles (Ancient Games Book 1) by Jesse Robinson
- An Introduction to Hnefatafl by Damian Gareth Walker
- Orkneyinga Saga: The History of the Earls of Orkney (Penguin Classics) by Anonymous (Author), Hermann Palsson (Translator), Paul Edwards (Translator)
- Fridthjof’s Saga; a Norse romance by Esaias Tegnér (Author), Thomas Addis Emmett Holcomb (Translator), Martha A. Lyon Holcomb (Translator)
- Hervarar Saga Ok Heidreks Konungs (Norwegian Edition) by N. M. Petersen
Pre-Made Board Games:
Video: How to Play Hnefatafl
More rule variations and capture moves.
How to Play Tafl
Be carried into the fantasy world of Norse myth and Viking legend.
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Copyright © 2015-2017 Spangenhelm Publishing – All rights reserved. No part may be reproduced in any written, electronic, recording, or photocopying form without written permission of the author, Njord Kane, or the publisher, Spangenhelm Publishing. <visit website>